Four Last Names
At a recent trip to the Social Security Administration to check out my retirement options, I received a two-page profile of my life as seen through the eyes of the government. Among the various data and employment history, I read with interest four last names that identified me: birth name, adoptive name, “failed” adoption and subsequent second adoptive name, married name. The journey through those various names began in an orphanage after my birth mother’s death when I was two, followed by an adoption arranged by my birth father (the adoption disrupted when I was 16), a second adoption by relatives and then my marriage. I am an amalgam of those appellations, as are all adopted persons whose original name is removed and a new name inserted as an indelible mark of identity.
Unlike many adoptees, I flowed between the various families who cared for me, fully aware of who was who in my childhood. There were visits to my birth father after he remarried and raised my biological brothers. There were explorations of the familial characters of which there were many on both the adoptive and birth sides. Even so, my life was unraveled at a number of critical junctures that resulted in me peering into lit houses at night and wondering if “family” was more clearly defined for whoever lived there. I began a lifelong habit of covetous observing of faces, especially those where siblings shared noses or a mother had lent her eyes to her child. I perked up to any overheard conversation in which speakers defined who and what they meant to each other along blood lines, especially those that indicated a lifetime arrangement that could not be undone. I became a voyeur to a landscape that didn’t include me.
The Adoptee Dance
Long before I gravitated to a career that landed me solidly in the adoption community, I found myself doing what I call the adoptee dance. The dance resembles what various species do when a jungle creature recognizes one of its own and immediately responds in synchronized movements. This occurs when an adopted person discovers another adopted person and in a singular motion join together in a magical sequence of movements. The dance must be conducted with no one else around and includes a rapid fire succession of proscribed interrogations: dates, events, countries or foster home, what is known about the first family or is unknown, when were you told and what have you found out that was invented. At first it is like following a fox trot chart with footprints that define the sequence of steps. But if time allows, the dance culminates in a revelation of some innermost truth, not acknowledged to a spouse or any other family member; because we are of the same ilk, we can show one another our most true selves. Ultimately, the dancers, who in all likelihood will never meet again, reluctantly part and reenter the outside world.
Today, more and more adoptees are dancing together as evidenced by the launch of Gazillion Voices. Adoptees have become acritical mass of people who are joining one another to have meaningful conversations. They are developing a new forum, not necessarily of like minds but inclusive of a variety of views in a valuable discourse. They discuss topics such as:
The common denominator in these diverse causes is preserving the integrity of identity, whether it be in a name, a race, a culture or an extended family.
History of Adoption
Ancient adoptions were less about identity than about dynastic rights, ensuring male heirs to land and titles when families lacked sons. The ancient Babylonians required consent of the original parents (particularly the birth father) in an adoption with the gruesome law that if the adopted person returned to that family, his eye or tongue was severed. The story of Moses indicates that his birth family knew of his whereabouts, and his first mother served as his nurse when he was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. The formality of such arrangements contrasts greatly with adoption practices among tribal people. The Hawaiians still practice“hanai” where a child is raised as another’s own when the need arises. Mostly arranged within families, a grandparent can ask to raise a grandchild and not be refused. Similar arrangements abound in Native American and African cultures.
Ethiopia is the current hotbed of adoption where some American families are hearing from their children (when they acquire English) that their supposedly dead parents are indeed alive. Also at issue is that culturally, African families practice a form of adoption that entrusts children to live with guardians for a better future without severing parental ties. To address the estimated 58 million children in Africa who have been impacted by war, famine and disease, leaders such as David Mugawe, executive director of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), recently said, “Every child should have an inalienable right to be nurtured and reared in the country and culture in which they are born.”
In America, coinciding with the industrial age, a mass exodus to cities by poor families resulted in children not receiving care from those families. The orphan trains between 1854 and 1929 transported large numbers of East Coast children across the country. The children were “placed” on railroad platforms for display to farm and small town families, thus the term “to be placed for adoption” arose. Few of the original orphan train riders are still living as remnants of the largest child migration movement in history.
Domestic Closed Adoptions and Birth Certificates
When scores of young unmarried women in post-World War II became pregnant, adoption became the solution championed by churches, maternity homes and adoption agencies. In the 1950s, when adoption became an industry in America and Westernized countries, a historical precedence of “adoption as the last resort” was replaced by a new paradigm often driven by secrecy.
A replacement birth certificate was proposed at a conference for social workers to address the “illegitimate” label printed on an adopted person’s birth certificate, ushering in an era of individual states passing legislation to close birth certificates from prying eyes. Court records were still available to families initially, but shame and subterfuge eventually sealed those as well in a movement to protect the adoptive family from the public learning the terrible secret of the child’s beginnings. No research existed regarding the impact of identity formation related to being denied one’s origins.
Today in the age of information when logging on to Facebook can result in finding one’s family of origin, there can be no guarantee of anonymity. Domestic and some international adoptions entail the expectation of ongoing contact between families. Oregon, the first state to enact adoptee access to their original birth certificates, has just passed legislation that opens the adoption file to interested parties. Individual states are still battling the issue of adopted persons accessing their original birth certificates. While adopted children grow up to vote, serve in the military and pay taxes, they are infantilized and denied full equal status to non-adopted peers when it comes to having their original paperwork.
Transnational and Transracial Adoption
After 1953 and the Korean War, America and Europe began to view Korean orphans, particularly those whose fathers were GIs, as adoptable. Religious groups began a movement that resulted in over 120,000 Korean children being adopted by Americans, according to the Evan. B. Donaldson Institute. Children of Korean descent experienced struggles with identity, being viewed as a racial minority in an experience not shared with their white parents. As adults, legions of Koreans have found one another, many returning to their homeland to seek birth families and explore their first culture. A movement through groups such as Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK) and Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) addresses a growing sentiment that was first voiced through North Korean criticism of South Korea’s adoption industry. As a result, South Korea has limited the numbers of intercountry adoptions while encouraging domestic adoptions.
Two racial groups within the U.S. are often resistant to formal adoptions and have fought to prevent adoption across racial lines. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers vehemently opposed any adoption of an African American child into a white home for any reason. This was countered by the 1995 Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 that prohibited agencies from getting federal funding if they held up adoptions to seek a same race placement of children. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 is a federal mandate that addresses the generational removal of Native children from the families and culture. A vigorous debate continues as both African American and Native children are over-represented in the foster care system, waiting longer for adoption and being less likely to be adopted the longer they wait. Many adopted persons who have the life experience of being adopted or fostered transracially are adding their expertise to form best practices and to address disparities.
Hearing Our Voices
The complexities of issues reveal a rich tapestry of adoption that provides the backdrop for adopted persons. Advocacy helps them find their voice, be it collective or singular, strident or calming. Some express themselves through art, documentaries, writing or in electronic media. Others return yearly to their respective state legislatures to champion a particular cause. Still others make pilgrimages to their homelands to find traces of themselves. Outlets such as Gazillion Voices are essential so that adoptees can hear one another. That way they can possibly find a partner who may ask them to join in the adoptee dance.
~ Mary Martin Mason